A totally modern pub, unapologetically of the 1930s, designed to look like an Art Deco racing aeroplane? No wonder it keeps going viral.
We first encountered The Comet, a big inter-war hotel on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, when we began researching 20th Century Pub. Basil Oliver mentions it in his essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House and we found further information in this 2015 post by retro-vintage blogger Mark Amies.
Although we only had space for an overview of the ‘improved public house’ movement of the inter-war years, and a brief mention for The Comet, we actually gathered a fairly substantial amount of research material, and have collected more since.
Here, for example, is the opening of an article from the journal of the Royal Institue of British Architects (RIBA) from January 1937, about a month after The Comet opened:
This new hotel is of interest for the following principal reasons:
1. It represents a new type of hotel, namely, one that caters for the best class of traveller, yet is situated not in a large centre of population, but on an arterial road in rural surroundings. There is, however, an aerodrome, an aircraft factory and some house property nearby, the occupants of which will provide some local trade. Mainly, however, it will depend on visitors from London and travellers on the Great North Road.
2. The architect was given complete freedom not only in the general plan and design in all details. Such items as the lettered notices, the menu cards, most of the furniture and many of the textiles were designed by the architect. The ensemble, which is remarkably well carried out, has therefore unusual unity.
3. The plan is both simple and efficient. Its main element is the grouping of the public rooms round the service and kitchen. Yet so well is this done that the feeling of segregation of different classes of trade, commonly experienced in inns and public-houses having this plan, is absent. Each public room is a separate unit.
4. The general exterior form is novel, yet expresses the structure and plan exactly.
Arup is an architecture firm founded in 1946 by Ove Arup, born in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK to Danish parents in 1895, and educated in Denmark. Though he died in 1988 the company lives on, its name a byword for modernism.
In 1970, Arup was commissioned by Carlsberg Brewery Ltd to design a new plant in Northampton in the English Midlands, just as the lager boom was beginning to bite. The cost of the project was £15 million; Carlsberg supplied the brewery equipment and defined the necessities of the space according to production need; and Arup commissioned Danish architect Knud Munk to produce a design that would “express the best in modern Danish architecture”.
As well as lots of detail in the text the magazine also includes process charts…
…and lots of dramatic black-and-white photography of the brewery building at various stages of construction, set in the flat landscape against dramatic skies…
…which are either awe-inspiring or grim depending on your point of view.
It’s fascinating to think of this hulk appearing, with attendant talk of efficiency and automation, at just the exact moment the Campaign for Real Ale was taking off. This is about as far from all that imagery of wooden casks, old inns and pewter tankards as you can get.
And the emphasis throughout on the Danishness of the project – Danish brewers, Danish architect, officially opened by the Queen of Denmark – while canny in terms of underlining the authenticity of the product was also at odds with the growing sense that Local was somehow a sacred virtue.
We’ve been researching this building and Carlsberg’s arrival in the UK on and off for years and this showed up in one of our periodic check-ins. There are times we worry about the state of corporate archives and others when we feel like we’re living in the best possible age, with digitising getting cheaper and companies realising the value of their own history.
Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. This is the second in a series of blog posts intended to highlight great resources you can go and look up yourself.
We had assumed that the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) might be difficult to get into but, no, it’s a doddle. You just turn up at the gorgeous building on Portland Place, London W1, and sign yourself in with the requirement to show some sort of photo ID the only hurdle to jump.
The library itself is small but tranquil with plenty of quiet bays, balconies and corners to work in. There are lots of desks and plenty of power points, and the library has a liberal policy with regard to the use of cameras and smartphones, as long as you obey the usual rules of copyright and redistribution. (Which, of course, we have slightly bent by using some of the images below, but only at low-res, mostly grainy and out of focus at that, and purely by way of commentary on the library itself.)
There’s a huge amount of stuff relevant to the interests of pub geeks available on open access before you even start bothering the stacks. There’s a comprehensive collection of books on pub architecture, for example, including standard works by people such as Ben Davis and Mark Girouard as well as more niche publications. Lynn Pearson’s 1989 book The Northumbrian Pub: an architectural history was nice to stumble across, for example.
There are also bound volumes of various architecture and building magazines dating back to the Victorian period that you are free to take from the shelf and browse. Some are indexed better than others and references to pubs in particular can be hard to track down, listed as they might be under public houses, taverns, inns, pubs, drinking establishments, hotels depending on the customs of each year and the prejudices of the indexer.
We found lots to enjoy in particular in The Architect and Building News, The Architects’Journal, The Brick Builderand Building. Pubs didn’t come up all that often beyond bouts of bickering on the letters pages but when they did it tended to be in substantial features with lots of pictures and plans. The issue of ABN for 23 October 1936, for example, had a big, lavishly illustrated feature on the Myllet Arms at Perivale, with credits for every detail of the decor and building: “Carving to Sign: Gertrude Hermes”. The AJ for 24 November 1938 had an epic article by the architect of the Myllet Arms, E.B. Musman, called ‘Public Houses: Design and Construction’, with descriptions, maps and photographs of tons of pubs, and 1930s Art Deco examples in particular.
Another article of particular note — do go and look it up if you get chance — is ‘The Post-War Pub’ from the Architects’ Journal Information Library for 20 May 1964. It is based on a survey of post-war pubs commissioned by the Brewers’ Society and led by architect Geoffrey Salmon who we assume also wrote the article. If you’re interested, as we are, in estate pubs, flat-roofed pubs, booze bunkers, or whatever else you want to call them, this is the motherlode, crammed with acute observations, photographs and statistics — this is where we found the estimate of the number of pubs built in the post-war period cited in 20th Century Pub.
At this point we should mention the staff who could not have been more helpful on our multiple visits. At one point, having explained what we were researching, one of the librarians got a bit animated trying to recall some nugget of information. He turned up at the desk where we were working half an hour later with an early 20th century article about pubs that was confusingly indexed anywhere but that he remembered having come across years before. Now that’s above and beyond.
Into the Stacks
There’s also a huge amount of material kept under lock and key but no less accessible for that. As it’s a small, fairly quiet library nothing takes long to emerge once a slip has been submitted — ten minutes, perhaps? It was through this route that we were finally able to get our hands on Basil Oliver’s 1934 book The Modern Public House. As it happened it contained most of the same material as his later must-read The Renaissance of the English Public Housebut it was good to verify that with our own eyes, and also to read the short introduction by the great Imperial architect and occasional pub designer Edwin Lutyens:
The Public House represents what should be the hub of our wheel of Life, essential to our material need and second only to the Church that stands and represents our spiritual necessity. The Church is to the spirit as the Inn is to the flesh and, if good and well designed, they baulk the Devil himself.
Of less interest, perhaps, are the various government publications on planning, housing and public health, most of which mention pubs only in passing. Still, we found them useful, in lieu of easy to access online versions. (Which, seriously, there ought to be.) The same might be said for obscure architectural guidebooks such as Hugh Casson’s New Sights of London from 1938 which has notes on a few pubs and includes this particularly lovely illustration:
So, there you have it: perhaps our favourite library of all of those we explored in the last year or two. You can search the catalogue online — try ‘pubs’ for starters and if the mile-long list of results doesn’t give you the urge to visit then nothing will.
This set of pictures and accompanying notes come from editions of the Truman Hanbury & Buxton in-house magazine, the Black Eagle Journal, published in 1967.
As before, we’ve tried to include information on when buildings were actually opened; credits for photographers and architects where available; and updates on how the buildings look 50 years on.
1. The Elephant & Castle, London
We’re starting with a bit of a superstar pub — one many of us will have heard of, if not visited, and after which this whole area of London is named. We’ve got an earlier article from the Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette boasting about the modernisation of the pub in 1900. By the mid-1960s, when the area was being comprehensively redeveloped, that Victorian pub was doomed.
The idea for this uncomprisingly brutal new design seems to have come from the Greater London Council’s planners and the developer’s architect Ernő Goldfinger who suggested that ‘the public house should appear to float on glass’. Truman’s in-house architect, Frederick G. Hall, interpreted that instruction as above, his design being implemented by A.P. Ciregna. It’s nice that in this case we not only have an architect’s credit but also a photo of Mr Hall drinking the first pint pulled at the new pub while being applauded by brewery director Sir Thomas Buxton.
Footnotes: pumpclips have definitely arrived by this point but that they are tiny; note also dimple mugs, which had overtaken ten-siders by this point.
The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.
We found the photo in the autumn 1957 edition of the Hopleaf Gazetteas shared by Raymond Simonds on his website — a wonderful trove of archive material from his family’s brewery. It accompanies a brief profile of the Architects’ Department which mentions Reg Norkett’s name in passing.
Without any great expectations we Googled him and found his address on the website of a professional organisation for architects; we wrote him a letter and have since exchanged a few emails. What follows is a lightly edited version of his responses to our questions with a little commentary from us here and there.
First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?
I was born in Reading in 1936, educated at Redlands Primary School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Reading Blue Coat School at Sonning near Reading as a boarder from 1948 to 1953.
During my time at school I realised I was interested in a career in the building/construction industry as, e.g. a surveyor or architect. I managed to obtain the required number of O levels to commence professional training and was initially employed in the Borough Architects Deparment at Reading Borough Council, as Junior Assistant in the Clerk of Works Section. I commenced training in part-time study for a National Certificate in Building at the local Technical College.
However I was keen to be involved in the Design and preparation of drawings and so on, which I discussed with the Borough Architect. He approached the Chief Architect at H&G Simonds, Mr Reginald Southall, who is shown in one of the photographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you forwarded.
I was offered a junior position in the Architects Department, joining the company in 1954, and commencing study part-time at the Oxford School of Architecture.